The Heat Is Online

More Than 2000 Wildfires Scorch Florida

Wildfire smoke now the threat
Fri Apr 23 1999 9:37 EDT

Kelli Miller,

Extra firefighters called in to battle the massive inferno in Florida's Everglades headed home Thursday, after officials announced they were close to dousing the blaze that has scorched more than 170,000 acres.

"That (fire) has capped out right now," said Gene Madden, division safety officer with the Florida Division of Forestry. "There continues to be some burning in the extreme northwest corner of the fire…(but) we do not perceive it as a threat to break out."

With the threat of flames diminishing in the Everglades, the biggest problem now is the smoke. The Florida Department of Health issued a health alert Thursday, encouraging those with health problems to stay inside because of poor air quality.

"The pollution resulting from the fires combined with vehicle emissions, hot temperatures and low winds push air quality into the unhealthy range for sensitive individuals," the statement read.

Earlier this week, black smoke darkened skies above Florida's state capital of Tallahassee, when a wildfire moved within 20 miles of the city limits. Fires continued to burn across the state yesterday, including two in Apalachicola and Osceola national forests.

Aided by shifting winds and parched grounds, the Everglades blaze was the largest of at least 2,568 wildfires that have burned almost 230,000 acres in Florida this year. Flames left an area of blackened sawgrass estimated at 24 miles long and 15 miles wide.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush asked President Clinton to declare a statewide wildfire emergency. Citing rainfall records and forecasts, Bush's request read "It is apparent from these figures that fires in Florida will continue to spring up for the foreseeable future."

Meteorologists at The Weather Channel predict the dry weather will continue. A few isolated thunderstorms are possible this weekend, but it won't be enough to quench the dry state.

"It's not going to be a widespread rain, which is what they really need," said meteorologist Robyn Weeks-

Hulecki. "In fact lightning from thunderstorms could antagonize the situation."

Wildfires have damaged of destroyed 140 homes and buildings this year, most of them in St. Lucie County last week, and injured 20 firefighters. Reuters contributed to this news report.

Florida Rain Fails to Remove Threat of Fires

April 19, 1999 By RICK BRAGG The New York Times
MIAMI -- A hard but all too brief rain helped bring a major brush fire in theEverglades under control Sunday, as firefighters steeled themselves for what forecasters have predicted to be another hot, dry week in Florida's wildfire season.
Though the wildfire still burned alongside Alligator Alley, the interstate highway that links Miami and Fort Lauderdale with the western coast of Florida, firefighters said that it was under control and posed no threat to residents.
The fire, which had consumed about 50,000 acres and was expected to consume thousands more before burning itself out, shut down the east-west highway, Interstate 75, for much of Saturday and Sunday and caused traffic snarls on both coasts before the midday rain.
Perhaps the most eerie effect of the wildfire was felt in Miami, where the smoke, combined with a Saturday storm that brought wind but little rain, sent a dark cloud rolling across the city and surrounding communities. People walked the street with scarves, rags and their shirts tied over their mouths, and police switchboards were flooded with calls from people who were afraid their neighborhoods were on fire.
But in just over an hour the dark cloud had moved out of Miami and other cities here in the southern tip of the peninsula, blown out to sea by winds. Residents were comparing the cloud to Los Angeles smog.
Joe Wasilewski, a 46-year-old biologist, was driving home to Miami from Palm Beach when the cloud rolled across the Florida Turnpike near the border between Broward and Miami-Dade counties. "It was as thick as I've ever seen it," Wasilewski said. "Traffic slowed down pretty much to a crawl. Visibility was only 50 feet."
The brief rain that fell Sunday on South Florida -- some areas, including Coral Gables, had rain and drizzle for more than an hour -- were not expected to save the state from more fires in the coming week. But firefighters around the state appreciated the break, however brief.
"It's quiet right now," said Jim Karels, assistant chief of the Florida Fire Protection Bureau.
Some 2,500 fires -- many believed the work of arsonists -- have consumed about 109,000 acres this year, state officials said. The hardest-hit area has been Port St. Lucie, north of Palm Beach, where 43 homes have been destroyed. Fires last year burned about 500,000 acres, and caused $400 million in damage.

Many consider the wildfires as part of a general trend toward a drier, less hospitable climate for Florida, perhaps driven by global warming, perhaps by the growing demand for water as the state's population continues an explosion that began in the 1970s and has never slowed.

Florida fears fires as bad as last year's

By Brad Liston, Boston Globe Correspondent, 04/18/99

The people are all back, and the helpers from the Army have gone. The streets have been cleared, the burned homes demolished, and hundreds of lawns that once smoldered are again emerald green.

Mary Rogers, a 68-year-old widow who returned last year to find her roof lost to fire and water damage, has rebuilt and now lives amid new furnishings, old cats, and the gnawing fear she has that it could all happen again.

The fire season has returned to Florida, and although the damage is still small compared with 1998 - some 65,000 acres burned compared with 500,000 - the television news leads every broadcast with fresh reports of lost homes, families evacuated, and public safety officials using words like ''powder keg,'' ''tinderbox,'' and ''disaster.''

''I never thought I'd have to worry about fires every year, but now I feel like I'm a sitting duck again,'' Rogers said. ''I look out my back window, and I see the woods, and I think, `One day I'll look back there and it will all be on fire.'''

And this is only April. The firestorms last year reached their peak on Independence Day, when Flagler County was locked up, 200 miles of Interstate 95 was closed down, and firefighters from 48 states and six nations were fanned out across Florida in all-out war against Mother Nature.

So far this year, rainfall is 90 percent below normal, and the wildfires, more than 2,000 of them, are up about a third over average years.

Flagler County has not been revisited by the inferno, but homes in a third of the state's 67 counties have been threatened. About 50 have burned, a like number have been damaged.

The question on most people's minds: Have we seen the worst, or just a taste of things to come?

The state's official climatologist, Jim O'Brien, a professor of meteorology and oceanography at Florida State University, represents the most optimistic school of thought.

''The whole threat's over by the 15th of May,'' he predicted confidently. ''Rain will be here.''

And not just the rain that these days gives firefighters a quick breather, but summer thundershowers, arriving like clockwork each afternoon. Rains that in years past kept Florida looking lush and abundant even if the thermometer read 95 degrees.

O'Brien, and many other state officials, see the firestorms of the past two years as part of the El Nino/La Nina effect that is now ending its 10-year cycle.

''Florida could have been better prepared last year,'' said O'Brien, because the impact of El Nino/La Nina had been predicted since 1994. ''Waiting until your house is burning down to buy a fire truck is pretty silly.''

O'Brien said this was the first time scientists had been able accurately to project the impact of El Nino/La Nina, using supercomputers to crunch tens of millions of pieces of data.

Last year, government managers were long accustomed to relying on short-term climate forecasts from the federal government and failed to take the appropriate precautions, such as prescribed burning of underbrush, making sure forest roads were open, and stockpiling supplies. All of this made firefighting efforts largely ineffective in the first month of the crisis.

El Nino pushed Florida's drought index into Saharan highs of last June and July, during what is normally the rainy season.

And La Nina is making the usually dry months of March, April, and May worse than normal. But O'Brien said this does not herald the return of skies endlessly blackened with smoke and soot.

Much of the Florida's government is banking that O'Brien is right, because once again the state is doing little to prepare for disaster. Prescribed burns have been sporadic, and the Legislature approved only $13 million of the $37 million sought for firefighting by the Florida Agriculture Department.

Unfortunately, there are more pessimistic predictions than O'Brien's. ''I'll believe it's going to rain when I see it hit the ground,'' said Scott Goodrick, a state meteorologist.

Many consider the wildfires as part of a general trend toward a drier, less hospitable climate for Florida, perhaps driven by global warming, perhaps by the growing demand for water as the state's population continues an explosion that began in the 1970s and has never slowed.

Florida's aquifer, the underground river system that stores and supplies most of the state's fresh water, is at historic lows.

''We're seeing aquifer levels below last year's, and last year was a record drought,'' said Bill Graf, an official with one of Florida's water management districts.

As the aquifer depletes, so do lakes, streams and rivers above ground.

''If the ground is so dry the rainwater won't stand, then rain won't increase the moisture in underbrush, which is where your fires really burn,'' said Bill Miller, a state botanist.

To illustrate his point, he bent and snapped a normally pliable palmetto frond as if it were a twig. This was the day after a fairly heavy rain.

''This is Florida, and you're going to get rain, hurricanes, all kinds of tropical stuff,'' Miller said. But if the climate is really trending warmer and drier, then ''the water will just run off or soak through, and the fire hazard will just get worse and worse.''

The fires can have a significant economic effect. Every year, more than 50 million tourists visit Orlando's major theme parks: Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and SeaWorld Orlando. Last year, despite a robust economy, attendance was flat for the first time since the recession year of 1991.

Industry analysts pointed to the wildfires as an important factor.

For a state whose No. 1 industry is tourism, the prospect of an annual state of emergency with every fire season poses a wider threat than even the burning of a few hundred homes. Maybe even more than the evacuation of an entire county.

''The fires never even got close to the theme parks,'' said Vic Abbey, general manager of SeaWorld Orlando. ''But all people heard about was wildfires. If people are worried the parks will close, they're not going to come here.''


This story ran on page A06 of the Boston Globe on 04/18/99.
Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

As Fires Afflict a Parched Florida, More Are Expected

April 17, 1999

Orlando -- Severe drought, coupled with high temperatures and high winds have fueled dozens of fires around Florida this month. Several were still burning on Friday, and officials said they expected more fires over the weekend.

On Thursday alone, 51 brush fires consumed nearly 5,816 acres. The worst blaze was in Port St. Lucie, 45 miles up the coast from West Palm Beach. Dozens of families were left homeless in Port St. Lucie after a fire destroyed 43 homes and severely damaged 33 others as it consumed 2,400 acres before being brought under control.

An unidentified construction worker was credited with saving 10 houses when he dug a trench around a subdivision as 10-foot-high flames threatened them.

Late Friday, fire officials said two major brush fires had burned 1,500 acres near here in Osceola County, forcing dozens of people to evacuate their houses though none were destroyed. The fires were under control but still burning, firefighters said.

In Putnam County, 50 homes were evacuated and a mobile home destroyed when a fire set by an arsonist burned 325 acres before it was put out.

Seven helicopters and three tankers planes are being used to fight the fires.

Since early January, the Florida Division of Forestry said there have been more than 2,417 fires that destroyed 57,000 acres and caused several million dollars in damage.

"We are praying we only have another month and half of this," said James Brenner, fire management administrator for the forestry division. "This kind of fire season concerns us. We knew it was coming."

Some areas of the state have gone 80 days without rain and while rain was forecast for the weekend, the long-term outlook was for continued high temperatures and dry weather. The temperatures on Thursday reached a record high 95 degrees here, and the drought index went above 600 in several counties. By comparison, a rating of 400 this time of year can create a serious potential for fires, according the index, which is determined by analyzing rainfall, humidity, temperatures and other factors.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, allowing the Florida National Guard to help fight the fires. It immediately sent two Black Hawk helicopters with 700-gallon buckets on cables to fight the blaze in Port St. Lucie, a town of about 56,000 people.

Last summer's outbreak of 2,300 fires destroyed 500,000 acres, 300 homes and several businesses and caused more than $300 million in damage. Since then, Florida has begun a controlled burning program to ease the fire danger.

"The nature of some of these forests, with the amount of undergrowth leaves and pine needles, they can burn underground for weeks and weeks," Terry McElroy, a spokesman for the Florida Agriculture Department, told The Associated Press. "They are thought extinguished but reignite when the wind kicks up."<NYT_FOOTER version = 1.0

Florida Fires Destroy Homes

April 16, 1999
Filed at 7:48 a.m. EDT
By The Associated Press The New York Times

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. (AP) -- Bob Dufresne sat in his van this morning, hoping his home wasn't one of the 48 burned to the ground by a wind-driven blaze that raced through the sun-baked neighborhoods of Port St. Lucie.

He heard the house behind his was gone. He remembered seeing bushes across the smoky street start to burn as he fled with his wife, Gail.

``When I left, the fire was heading straight for it,'' Dufresne said of his home as he stared at police lights at a roadblock 100 yards away. ``I don't know if it's standing or not.''

As many as 60 homes in this eastern Florida community were damaged by the fire Thursday. Police Lt. Steve Claus said at least 48 were destroyed.

In other areas of the rain-starved state, more than 150 people were forced out of their homes by fires that burned some 2,500 acres in Osceola and Collier counties.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported. Authorities were still worried about hot spots today -- the fire had been considered out late Wednesday, but flared as it was fanned by winds gusting to 30 mph.

Fire officials say that without any significant rain, conditions are ripe for a repeat of last summer's blazes that scorched 500,000 acres and forced 100,000 residents from their homes. Drought-like conditions have already prompted an emergency declaration from the governor.

Port St. Lucie, with a population of nearly 80,000, is home to many retirees and the New York Mets spring training camp. It is 105 miles southeast of Orlando on Florida's Treasure Coast, a stretch of the state's Atlantic coast where sunken ships with gold have been found.

Before it was contained, the fire here charred 2,400 acres as it moved toward an area with about 200 homes, state emergency officials said.

About 6,000 homes lost power and authorities kept watch for looters. Some people, who were forced from their homes, were escorted back into their neighborhoods early today.

Vicki Roenbeck was one of many residents gathered at a roadblock just before midnight hoping to get back to their homes. She had just arrived from work, where she had watched news reports of burning homes.

``I just want to get to my house,'' Ms. Roenbeck, 36, pleaded with a deputy, her voice shaking. ``My husband called me at 4 o'clock and that's the last I've heard from him.''

Dee Braley, 29, was sitting on her car smoking a cigarette, waiting for permission to go to her home just a street away. Hours earlier, she had refused to leave.

``They came by one time and told me I had to evacuate and I just stayed,'' she said. ``And then they came back and said, `Ma'am, you'll have to go now or we'll have to physically remove you.' I didn't feel like arguing with them.''

She gathered a bag with insurance papers and clothes before leaving.

``I'm not even sure if they're matched,'' Ms. Braley said. ``When I walked outside it was hard to breathe. It was like a black fog. It burned your eyes and you could feel it in your chest.''

Residents flee fire in Florida

The Boston Globe April 16, 1999

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - A wind-driven fire destroyed at least eight homes yesterday, then turned toward 200 residences in a sparsely populated area. The fire forced the evacuations of some residents in Osceola and Polk counties in central Florida, and Collier County in the southwest, police said. The fires were aided by winds and drought conditions. In Osceola County, a 50-acre fire threatened 30 homes and at least 60 people were evacuated, fire department spokeswoman Twis Hoang said. Another fire was burning 70 acres just north of US 192 also in Osceola County. (AP)

Dry Weather Is Striking Fear of Wildfires Across Florida


The New York Times April 15, 1999

MIAMI -- It has been fine weather for the tourists here in Florida, with day after day of blue skies, but firefighters across the state have learned to despise these perfect days.

Last year, during an unusually parched, brittle dry season that lasted into midsummer, walls of fire 40 feet high swept through palmetto scrub and pine barrens and destroyed homes, forced entire communities to evacuate and left vast areas of the state in ashes.

It was the worst year for wildfires in state history.

This year, say experts on these wildfires and the weather patterns that cause them, Florida is even drier and more at risk than it was at this time last year, and already fires are forcing evacuations and burning thousands of acres in south and central Florida.

"The potential is there for a bad year," said Scott Goodrick, a meteorologist with the Florida Division of Forestry in Tallahassee.

On Tuesday, Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency as Florida's drought index -- an analysis of rainfall, humidity, temperatures and other factors -- climbed above 600 in most areas south of Orlando. A drought index of even 400 this time of year can create a serious potential for fires.

Last year, before rains finally started in mid-July, ending the state's burning season almost two months later than normal, wildfires had consumed 500,000 acres and 150 homes. Much of that damage was in Flagler, Seminole, Brevard and Volusia Counties on the east side of the state.

Interstate highways were shut down by fires that burned on both sides of the roads, and one of the state's biggest sporting events, the Pepsi 400 stock car race in Daytona, had to be postponed as smoke hung over the state's central and northeastern coasts.

More than 10,000 firefighters, including thousands from other states, battled for months to keep the fires from destroying even more homes and businesses. Firefighters, who battled the largest, most threatening fires in June and July, said over and over that it was a miracle that no one died.

An unseasonably wet winter and early spring pushed the burning season into late spring and summer last year, and forecasters hoped that the summer rains would make it short. But, weather conditions delayed the afternoon thundershowers that are part of life here and set the stage for the fires, meteorologists said.

"Our rainy season begins in the last of May or early June, but last year it was the middle of July," Goodrick said. "We're drier this year than we were at this point last year."

Cities from Pensacola in the Florida Panhandle to Miami have reported no measurable rainfall for April, said meteorologists. Firefighters have battled more than 1,900 wildfires this year, almost three times as many as this time last year, said officials with the State Division of Forestry.

Several fires have raged across Miami-Dade County and in neighboring Broward County. Across the state, a wildfire near the border of Lee and Charlotte counties shut down Interstate 75.

In March, 36 fires burned 1,015 acres in Polk, Hillsboro and Pinellas Counties, on the western coast.

"Unless we get a considerable amount of rain this weekend, it's going to stay bad," said Chris Kintner, the public information officer for the state Division of Forestry's Lakeland District, which covers those three counties.

Again, firefighters are hoping for an early rainy season, and it seems that weather conditions are right for such relief, said Andy Devanas, the state meteorologist with the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

In the rainy season, easterly air currents sweep up moisture from the tropics and into the state as rain.

"I don't see anything that would mean that the rainy season would not start on time," said Devanas, but he stressed that conditions can always change.

The governor's declaration of a state of emergency allows him to mobilize the Florida National Guard, including military helicopters, to fight fires.

Fires burn on in FL, GA, AL
Wed Apr 14 1999 9:39 EST

The Weather

Kelli Miller,

Isolated thunderstorms heading toward Florida will not be enough to douse thousands of acres of brush fires and could even make the situation worse.

If lightning strikes the tinder-dry conditions, it could spark more fires, said Buzz Bernard, senior meteorologist at The Weather Channel.

Dought-like conditions and insufficient rainfall has firefighters on high alert in Florida and parts of extreme southern Georgia and Alabama.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has declared a state of emergency as wildfires continue to char hundreds of thousands of acres across the state. More than 2,200 wildfires have burned about 50,000 acres since January. Brevard, Flagler and Polk counties bearing the brunt of the blazes.

Transportation officials are continually monitoring the smoke visibility threat to Interstate 95 in Brevard County, where severe forest fires forced the closure of the heavily traveled highway in July 1998. Nearly 2,500 fires singed nearly a half million acres there last summer.

Fire Ban in North Carolina

A fire ban has been implemented in 32 western North Carolina counties where hazardous fire conditions persist. Firefighters are currently battling a half dozen fires in Swain, Buncombe, Polk and Ruthford counties, but strong gusty winds and low humidity are exacerbating the situation.

Suppression crews are still working on the Buck Mountain an out of control fire in Wilkes County, which started last Friday. The fire, which has burned over 500 acres, is threatening the Pumpkin Run Development which has been evacuated.

Fire Danger Not Limited to the South

Low relative humidity and brisk winds prompted the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection to issue an extreme forest fire danger alert Wednesday, the highest rating in four years.

"Forest fire danger ratings of extreme are uncommon in Connecticut," said Don Smith, State Forester and Director of DEP's Division of Forestry. "Extreme fire danger level during the Spring forest fire season is largely determined by how fast a fire will spread. As drier, windier conditions increase the likelihood for rapidly spreading fire, the danger level increases as well.

Forest fires scorch approximately 1,300 acres of Connecticut woodland each year. The state traditionally experiences the highest forest fire dangers from mid-March through May.